Butterflies in Manila: A symbol of hope for urban biodiversity

In Photo: Arroceros Forest Park

Most Filipinos believe in the superstition that a butterfly is a reincarnation of a departed loved one. That when a butterfly is wandering in one’s home, it is believed that they are the departed loved ones who came to visit.

Such stories never fail to generate the mixed feelings of relief, love, inspiration and hope, especially for those who live in the city, where the birds, the bees, the flowers and the trees are now hard to find.

But what do butterflies truly represent, especially in a polluted setting like Metropolitan Manila, specifically the bustling city of Manila, the country’s capital city?

Biodiversity values

Golden birdwing butterfly (Troides rhadamantus) species listed under CITES Appendix II, or threatened species.

Butterflies are valuable parts of biodiversity, or urban biodiversity in the case of Manila, said wildlife expert Josefina de Leon, the chief of the Wildlife Resources Division of the Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB).

In an interview on June 25, de Leon said like all other species, butterflies have important ecosystem functions. Among this is pollination—or the transfer of pollen grains from the male anther of a flower to the female stigma—that enables fertilization and the production of seeds.

At the larval stage, butterflies are preys for birds or other insects. When fully grown, butterflies add value to the aesthetic beauty of the natural environment.

Strength in diversity

Maintaining a healthy population of diverse species of butterflies is important in many ways, especially in sustaining the survival of other species. De Leon said butterflies rely on the diversity of its species in fighting extinction and, eventually, adapting and thriving in changing environments, allowing other species to do the same.

She explained: “The more diverse the species, the higher their chance against becoming instinct. The higher they have a chance to adapt to the changing environment, the higher number of performing similar functions result in higher productivity and maintenance of ecological services they provide.”

Butterflies, by nature, have a very short lifespan, making the species prone to extinction.

“Most survive for a few weeks only and a few for several months,” she noted.

Butterflies and pollution

A group of Filipino scientists is currently studying the existence of butterflies and a selected green space, where their remaining their species in Metro Manila continues to thrive.

“Butterfly Diversity and Pollution: The Case in Manila City” is a Commission on Higher Education (CHED)-funded project of Universidad de Manila that uses wireless environmental monitoring sensors in assessing the impact of megacity environmental pollution and the local climate on butterfly diversity in Manila.

It aims to look into the plight of the very diverse yet highly vulnerable species that seemed to have survived and continue to thrive despite the shrinking green spaces in the heart of the urban jungle that is Manila.

First of its kind

Custer C. Deocaris, research chief of the Research Management Division of CHED that funded the study, told the BusinessMirror in a telephone interview on June 27 that the project is unique and can be considered a first of its kind.

“It’s a small university that is able to come up with a big discovery because of the trust and confidence the Commission gave,” he said.

“Any small university, capacitated, is capable of coming up with big discoveries. It’s CHED’s way of giving chance and equity to smaller universities, allowing them to excel in research and make significant breakthroughs,” he added.

According to Deocaris, the CHED, by funding research and development projects, is pushing for the composition of an interdisciplinary team to work in solving a complex problem. This includes butterfly diversity and pollution, and the impact of pollution to biodiversity in an urban setting, where experts in various fields of science work as a team under Universidad de Manila.

Why butterflies?

The Philippines, being a tropical country, is home to a diverse species of butterflies.

In urban areas, there is very little appreciation of their biodiversity values, not to mention the fact that they are rarely observed as they become scarce.

Around 90 percent of butterflies live in tropical areas like the Philippines, making the country prone to the occurrence of mysterious crawling caterpillars that eventually turn into beautiful winged creatures of diverse shapes and colors.

Despite this, little information is known about the behavior and diversity of butterflies in the urban setting, although generally, butterflies are known to have short lifespan.

Butterflies also have limited dispersal ability, food-plant specialization and dependence on weather and climate changes, making them good indicators of environmental changes. According to proponents of the study, understanding the effect of environmental pollution is essential in predicting the behavioral patterns and diversity among butterflies.

Manila’s butterflies represent a symbol of an urgent call to intensify efforts to preserve the last remaining green spaces in highly urbanized areas.

“The message with the butterflies is that there is still hope,” the study proponents said.

Baseline information

The study will attempt to answer questions—such as why are butterflies an important component of biodiversity and what is the role of urban green parks to butterfly diversity.

The study also hopes to develop baseline information about the diversity of Manila butterflies, reference data on environmental pollution and local climate, as well as a reference on policy formulation for protecting urban diversity and green spaces.

Through the project, the team also hopes to help disseminate information and enhance awareness about the importance of Manila’s butterflies and their habitats, rally support behind the conservation of the threatened butterfly species of Manila, and preserve the all-important urban green parks that are threatened by unbridled development.

Advocacy project

The project has been going on for several months now. At a news conference at a hotel in Intramuros, Manila, on June 23, the study proponents launched their advocacy to save Manila’s butterflies and preserve their habitats.

There are several green parks in the thickly populated urban centers in the National Capital Region. In the heart of every city sits green parks that are considered the “lungs” of these highly urbanized areas.

Manila is home to the Arroceros Park, the city’s last remaining forest cover, and Mehan Garden, the oldest botanical garden in Southeast Asia.

These parks are home to unique butterfly species considered to be the most vulnerable among indicator species of a healthy ecosystem.

Where there is a butterfly, the group believes there is hope for the survival of threatened urban biodiversity.

“These areas are ideal ecosystems for butterflies because they have water or they are near water bodies like the Pasig River and Manila Bay,” said butterfly expert Alma E. Nacua, a professor at the Universidad de Manila.

Interdisciplinary team

Other members of the team working on the project are Amalfi B. Tabin, also an educator from Universidad de Manila; Ernest P. Macalalad, a space scientist from Mapua University; De La Salle University’s Maria Cecilia D. Galvez, a physicist; Aileen H. Orbecido, an environmental engineer; Lawrence P. Belo, a chemical engineer; and Ken Joseph E. Clemente, an ecologist from the University of Santo Tomas.

The team will work on the study until April 2019, with the aim of coming up with important scientific finds and relevant policy recommendations.

“Besides being the first project of its kind in the country by merging urban biodiversity with pollution studies, the interdisciplinary nature of the project makes it unique, among others,” Nacua said, noting that the team is composed of experts in biodiversity, ecology, physics, space science, chemical engineering and environmental engineering.

“It is very seldom that diverse expertise is gathered together to attain a common scientific goal. It’s true in our case that there is unity in diversity,” she added.

Vulnerable species

Nacua, who is leading the study, said butterflies are the most vulnerable indicator species among all insects.

They are highly vulnerable or susceptible to pollution that many believe is the nature and character of Manila—which the study will attempt to prove or disprove.

“Initially, we learned that butterflies are directly affected by the level of pollution in Manila. But the pollution in Manila is erratic. Sometimes it goes up, sometimes it goes down,” she noted.

Urban biodiversity centers

The study is being conducted in four urban green parks in Manila. Besides Arroceros Park and Mehan Garden, the other sites are the Manila Zoological and Botanical Garden, and the Japanese Garden at the famous Luneta Park.

The parks, though most are man-made, serve as habitats for various organisms making them important spaces for urban biodiversity within a busy megacity.

The team believes that the presence of the host plants, nectarine plants and water resources in these parks are favorable for the survival of butterflies, including some endemic and threatened species.

Butterfly diversity

Preliminary findings revealed there are more than 30 species of butterflies—three are endemic, one threatened and two new subspecies that were first ever recorded in Manila.

The golden birdwing butterfly (Troides rhadamantus) is listed as threatened under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

Hence, the team posits that amid the issues of shutting down Arroceros Park—which  it described as Manila’s last lung—the green spaces should be preserved.

“This conservation advocacy is not only for butterflies, but also to all other organisms to which we can act as responsible cohabitants,” Nacua said.

The impacts of pollution on butterflies remain unknown, although it is well reported that host plants and food plants have direct effects on their survival.

The group believes that as long as host plants and food plants in the green spaces remain intact, butterfly populations have better chances of survival amid the indirect effects of environmental pollution.

For his part, Clemente said the study would hopefully come up with policy recommendation from the perspective of scientists on how to save Manila’s threatened butterflies and their last remaining ecosystems in Metro Manila.

“The mere presence of these butterflies in a highly urbanized area like Manila is a sign that there is hope for urban biodiversity to survive, as long as these urban green parks are preserved,” he said.

“Who would have thought that Manila is home to these unique species of butterflies despite being highly urbanized and polluted?” he asked.

He said the existence of Manila’s unique butterflies only goes to show that maintaining green spaces, no matter how small, is important and will help species survive and thrive even in a concrete jungle like Manila.

Image Credits: Butterfly Diversity & Pollution: The Case in Manila City study group

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